A Rossini overture, a Mozart piano concerto,
then a Mahler Symphony after interval…
Sounds like a typical night in just about any
Australian concert hall. But how is it that the
overture-concerto-symphony combo came to
dominate concert programs? Tom Ford leafs
through the history books to find out.

Have you ever sat in your concert seat, heard the opening chords of Beethoven’s 5th or Mozart’s Jupiter and thought to yourself: Didn’t I hear this recently?

In all likelihood, you probably did.

Large orchestras tend to perform what they (and we) regard as the masterworks of classical repertoire regularly and routinely. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, for instance, has performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto on three separate occasions over the last four seasons, most recently with Richard Tognetti last March. And after the interval? A symphony – Dvorák 8. The overture-concerto-symphony program may seem like a natural grouping of forms, especially now we’re so used to it, but it actually emerged over several centuries through a largely random confluence of musical ideas and events.

The overture was one of the first musical forms to gain a secure spot in the concert program. Although overtures had existed since Jean-Baptiste Lully opened his ballets with them in the 1650s, it was not until the 18th century that they became standalone works. In the 1756 edition of his New Musical Grammar, William Tans’ur defined an “Overture” as a piece being “play’d before the Concert begins”. By 1770, Hoyle’s Dictionarum Musica noted that a “Concert of Musick is seldom opened with anything else but an Overture, as they are composed and played in a bold striking strain, and command attention”. The perception that they were musical trifles – to be performed while the audience found their seat or caught up on gossip – quickly dissipated. Who today would nonchalantly look for their seat during the overture to The Marriage of Figaro or chatter during the ethereal strains of the first prelude to Lohengrin?

The dawn of organised concerts, in which ordinary members of society could pay a sum of money to hear exclusively secular music, occurred in the 17th century. London, more so than any other city, latched onto this fashion with gatherings organised by local violinist John Banister beginning in 1672. Rich coal merchant and amateur musician Thomas Britton hosted weekly concerts in his house from 1678 – a series that lasted for 36 years. Following Britton’s death in 1714, organised music concerts regularly took place in Hickford’s Great Room in James Street, Piccadilly.

London’s burgeoning music scene thus attracted a throng of foreign musicians keen to benefit from the public’s artistic thirst, with Handel reaping the most success. Others included composers Carl Friedrich Abel and Johann Christian Bach – the youngest son of Johann Sebastian, who became known as the “London Bach”. Abel and Bach devised subscription concerts in which a predominantly middle-class audience paid to hear music. Piano concerti took hold during these concerts, with JC Bach’s proving particularly popular.

While in London in 1764, Mozart became good friends with JC Bach; his musical influence proved lasting. The young Salzburger imitated his colleague’s style unabashedly, notably Bach’s piano concerti. Later in Vienna during the 1780s, Mozart began a similar subscription concert series in which he premiered many of his own compositions. These concerts displayed a mish-mash of works – arias, canons, songs, divertimenti etc. – with no uniform structure. Yet it was with this rise of subscription concerts that the concerto, with its mix of the virtuosic and orchestral, found popularity. It was also during the Bach-Abel concerts, scholar Alyson McLamore has noted, that “performances of large-scale instrumental sinfonias were increasingly called for”.

Enter Joseph Haydn.

Like many foreigners before him, Haydn found an appreciative audience for his compositions in the English, who especially liked his longer symphonies. The Viennese composer was treated like a superstar: “As usual the most delicious part of the entertainment”, wrote a critic in 1794, “was a new Grand Symphony by HAYDN; the inexhaustible, the wonderful, the sublime HAYDN! The first two movements were encored”.

But even before Haydn’s arrival in London, we can see the first inklings of the concert symphony in documents such as the 1781 Leipzig Gewandhaus constitution, which states how a concert should unfold: “In regularly-scheduled weekly concerts, a symphony, an aria, a concerto, and either a duet or an instrumental quartet are to be played before the interval; after the interval, a symphony, an aria, a chorus and a suite shall be performed”. Similarly, a London program (previous page) from 1787 shows the overture-concerto-symphony triad beginning to take root.

Something to note about this era was the regularity in which music was interrupted by applause. Mozart, too, spoke of this happening when he premiered his Paris symphony: “Right in the middle of the First Allegro came a Passage that I knew would please, and the entire audience was sent into raptures… I brought it once more at the end of the movement – and sure enough there they were: the shouts of Da capo!”

Mozart was so delighted with the interaction from the audience that “Right after the Sinfonie I bought myself an ice-cream”. The act of applauding and hollering in and between movements was a common occurrence in Haydn and Mozart’s day. By contrast, all that confronts musicians in between movements in today’s concert halls are sneezes and the clearing of throats.

The modern concert had begun to take a recognisable shape by the time Beethoven appeared on the scene, although he was soon to stretch the proportions of musical standards.

The 1805 premiere of the Eroica Symphony is the perfect example of how Beethoven redefined the concert experience. A standard performance of the work lasts close to an hour – the first movement alone outlasting many of Haydn and Mozart’s entire symphonies. So challenging did the Viennese find listening to the Eroica that it was usually performed at the beginning of a concert so as not to exhaust listeners by the end of the evening.

In 1808, when Beethoven premiered his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, he again challenged the norm. This particular concert ­– which also included his Fourth Piano Concerto and Choral Fantasy – lasted more than four hours! Even in 1824 at the premiere of his Ninth Symphony – often a standalone work when performed today – the composer had an overture, aria, terzetto and hymn precede the performance.

Beethoven’s overtures, concerti and symphonies cast a popular shadow over the remainder of the 19th century. A study conducted by Jeffrey Cooper showed that for the 50 years following his death in 1827, Beethoven’s instrumental works made up almost 25 per cent of all music performed in the concert hall – triple the percentage of any other composer. The trend has continued to this day, it seems, with these three musical forms of Beethoven’s featuring heavily in the concert repertoire.
This is no more evident than here in Australia: 2011 will see both the Melbourne and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras staging Beethoven Festivals revolving around his symphonies and concerti. Only recently, too, did ABC Classic FM listeners select his Choral Symphony, Fifth Piano Concerto and Pastoral Symphony as their three favourite works of all time.

One of the more decipherable factors in the formalisation of the modern repertoire was the demise of the impromptu concert. Mendelssohn and Brahms, schooled in the art of improvisation, each inherited the pianist–composer tradition. When they died, however, so too did spontaneity from concert programs. Brahms could improvise on a single tune for hours; while one of Mendelssohn’s popular concert tricks was to ask the audience for a number between one and 32, upon which he’d perform from memory the corresponding piano sonata by Beethoven. By the close of the century, a more routine approach to concert programming was taken. 

While it may seem unjust that contemporary composers are not given a greater voice in the modern concert repertoire, their exclusion is a product of concert-goers’ preference for familiarity. The same fate has befallen thousands of past composers who have been unable to find a niche in the modern program. What ever happened to Beethoven’s idol, Luigi Cherubini, or the man Haydn and Mozart considered their equal, Paul Wranitzky? The destiny of their enormous and highly worthy canon of music now lies solely in the hands of recording companies and smaller chamber ensembles. For it seems the large orchestras are content in playing the proven performers; and until otherwise, the overtures, concerti and symphonies of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky will continue to reign supreme.